Telling Stories Through Expanded Cinema: Professor Marco G. Ferrari

Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Professor Marco Ferrari holds an M.F.A. from the University of Chicago. He has been part of JCU’s Department of Communications since 2017, and in Summer 2022 he will be teaching Expanded Cinema. He is Director and Curator of the Virginio Ferrari Foundation, which provides spaces to artists and scholars as well as educational programs and community-based initiatives revolving around art. 

What brought you to Rome and JCU?
I studied abroad in Rome 20 years ago, and I promised myself that one day I would come back and make a film in the city. In 2017, I was finishing some projects in Chicago and I said to myself “now is the time to do it.” I happened to see that John Cabot was looking for instructors, so I proposed the Expanded Cinema course. It was only supposed to be one semester, but I decided to stay longer and continue teaching.

Marco G. Ferrari

Marco G. Ferrari

How did you become passionate about visual art and filmmaking? Who inspired you?
I come from a family of artists. My father is a sculptor and he’s still working, and my mom is passionate about drawing, painting, and photography. So art was always in my house. As a kid, I would help my father with exhibits and paint, so art always felt natural. I became passionate about artistic expression and I started studying music in high school and college. I sang and played bass and guitar in a few rock bands but whenever I would write lyrics, I envisioned things in a more cinematic way. Then in college, I started focusing on film and trying to learn more about it and its history, and that’s what guided my creativity at a young age.

How do you balance your art and filmmaking with your teaching position, your job as creative director of the Ferrari Foundation, and your other commitments?
Since I am currently in Chicago, I’m focusing a bit more on the foundation and trying to better understand how to make that a vehicle for my artwork, and how that then connects to other artists. Teaching film and interacting with students keeps me connected to the medium in a different way. We did a pilot program in the Fall, where I invited two artists to speak at John Cabot, so the idea of bridging Chicago and Rome, bringing artists to Rome, or vice versa is also connected to the foundation. The only way I can kind of balance my commitments is if they are all interconnected. It is a bit difficult, but I think obstacles help generate creativity. If everything were easy, then we probably wouldn’t push ourselves.

What advice would you give to aspiring artists/filmmakers?
Knowing what you’re passionate about and asking difficult questions about who you are and why you enjoy a specific medium. At the end of the day, working as an artist should be pleasurable, it should be a way of pushing your mind and your body. Take the idea of being successful out of the equation as a young artist and as a student and really ask yourself what is important to you, what is valuable to you. Then from there, connect with the medium and start networking. It’s really easy to just focus on the technology or focus on trying to be successful, but what I think can help you differentiate yourself from others is really knowing what’s important to you.

What is your teaching philosophy? What are the challenges and rewards of being a university professor?
I try to create an environment where there’s mutual respect. I’m the instructor and I’m there to help and guide, but I try to give students the responsibility of pushing themselves and the freedom to be creative with their work. Every class is different in that sense. I kind of see each class as its own film production, where I have a group of students, and every student is doing their own work, but we’re working together so that everyone is learning from each other.

As far as teaching is concerned, it’s important not to get stuck in a rut, to create new courses and have them run in the best way possible. I try to give myself the freedom to change my approaches, to learn from my mistakes and from different situations that come up. I think the challenge is to renew yourself and not fall into habits too much. The rewards are many: the interaction with students and seeing the level of imagination and the different perspectives that come about, the strong human connection.

Could you name three artists/films/directors that everyone should know and why?
Andrei Tarkovsky, a Russian filmmaker who made films like Stalker (1979), and Nostalghia (1983). He deals with the relationship we have with our environment and brings in a lot of philosophy and beautiful cinematography. Michelangelo Antonioni, an Italian filmmaker, managed to create really experimental work in a mainstream industry. He was able to bring ideas in the 50s and 60s that weren’t being really talked about in mainstream cinema, and he was able to do that in interesting ways. And Alfred Hitchcock. These are some of the filmmakers I talk about in the Expanded Cinema class. But cinema is so young and some of the filmmakers from 40, 50 years ago were able to really show its foundations and I think we can still look at them in interesting ways. My work is totally different from Hitchcock’s, but I can appreciate how he builds a story and how he uses dialogue. I think that through these three filmmakers you get a good sense of how cinema can move forward.

What projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently editing four years’ worth of material for my documentary on the Lago Bullicante lake in the Pigneto neighborhood in Rome. The lake was formed by a construction accident in the Ex-Snia factory, where they developed synthetic materials. A developer bought it, and he didn’t have the rights to build it there, but he still tried to build the largest mall in Rome, and in excavating, he tapped a main water vein, and a lake formed and flooded the whole construction site. Then in the 70s, the factory closed down and this whole ecosystem formed, and now part of the lake is public, it has become a natural monument, but the developer still owns another half of the factory. So there is this big battle between the residents who are trying to get the other half of the factory because it has become a very important ecosystem for migration. Since this is a highly congested area of Rome, this is a battle between doing what’s right and doing what’s wrong, and trying to get the city to do what’s right, and not follow aggressive modes of capitalism. The whole idea of this project is “can a place exists without needing to generate income and can we appreciate spaces without them doing anything, except nature existing?” Part of my work is placing myself in situations or environments, and then using that as a way of generating ideas. Within the documentary, I was able to do a lot of projections and work with the community, make smaller films for them, and develop ideas within the project.